Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

L. M. Gottschalk's "The Banjo" on a banjo

For more information go to www.palouserivermusic.com. This is a performance by Paul Ely Smith on fretless gourd banjo of his "back-engineered" ver...

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Comment by Greg Adams on July 16, 2010 at 2:19pm
I was very impressed with what Paul Smith accomplished here.
Comment by Rob MacKillop on July 16, 2010 at 3:29pm
Shall I be the Devil's Advocate? I'm not so sure about that - smacks of the classical guitar mentality - 'look what complex music I can play on the guitar/banjo'. It sounds better on the piano, in my extremely humble opinion, where it should have stayed.

Paul's playing, on the other hand, is amazing!

Sorry, Paul, but there's something not quite right about it. But I'm probably alone in my opinion.
Comment by Trapdoor2 on July 16, 2010 at 3:36pm
Cool! Paul's first LP was a huge influence on me back in the mid '80's. His version of "Ragtime Nightengale" (Lamb, arranged for 5-string openback by Paul) simply jumped all over me. I caught up with him a few years ago via a websearch and we exchanged a few emails, etc. Nice guy, he sent me a copy of his second LP "Ellipsis". I like the piano version, it will be interesting to hear Pauls arrangement!
Comment by Trapdoor2 on July 16, 2010 at 5:56pm
Ok, now I've heard it!

Um, I'm partially with you there Rob. It sounds overcomplex...but there is a core of history coming out of all that, that I really like. Paul has done the "reverse engineering" to discover the "banjo" in a period piano piece and I enjoy hearing it. Gottshalk was an 'entertainer' and in my mind his pieces have that rough and rowdy flavor of New Orleans...which comes out in this performance.

What a right hand Paul has! He has a bass-string technique that is very personal. I bet you could have played this piece for me blindfolded and I could have identified the player.

Ok, who else would be playing Gottshalk? ;-) Still, that snappy bass is a give-away to my ears.
Comment by Jim Dalton on July 18, 2010 at 11:43am
I heard Paul play this live about 15 years ago. Excellent playing but...

I'm with Rob on this -- I haven't changed my opinion in 15 years. What's the purpose of imitating a piano that's imitating the banjo?

Transcription is a tricky business with some pitfalls. I recall a paper from a Society of American Music conference in the early '90s (it was still called the Sonneck Society, I believe) in which someone proposed that we need a new edition of the Foster songs with guitar because Foster's original guitar versions of the songs had different intros and accompaniments than the piano versions. Having played hundreds guitar and piano versions of 19th c. American songs, I can confidently state that piano and guitar are two different things and that a guitar version should not sound like an imitation of the piano version of the same song. The performer was capable but they sounded all wrong.

Back to this one: Smith details his thoughts about this and his transcription process in an article published in Current Musicology in 1992. He believes that Gottschalk's piano transcription is a more accurate rendering of mid-19th c. banjo style than the tutors -- though I get the impression that he hadn't examined them that closely (if at all) -- he seems to have gleaned more information from secondary sources.

Now, I'll admit that Gottschalk had a remarkable ear but HE WAS WRITING PIANO MUSIC. This transcription seems to focus too much on replicating the piano's way of dealing with banjo style figuration, a dubious achievement at best. Sure it's flashy and impressive but it doesn't seem like banjo music to me.

The "main theme" of Gottschalk's The Banjo seems to be a version of the tune called Old Johnny Boker in the Briggs book published about a year later but certainly representing earlier repertoire. I am not saying that the tutors give definitive versions of the pieces -- certainly the best players would have improvised variations and flourishes of their own -- but I would hesitate to treat a piano version as MORE representative than banjo versions!

There are also a number of instances of "historical presentism" in the article. He cites research done in West Africa in the mid-20th c. as if the techniques represented by 20th c. African players would have influenced the players that Gottschalk heard in the 1850s. It's inaccurate to assume that African music stayed static for over 150 years while our music grew and changed.

I hate to pick his article apart but it really does have some problems.

I think we need to assess the nature of what we can glean from the Gottschalk piece and other piano or guitar "imitations" of the banjo but I think Smith's article misses the point and that "miss" influenced his arrangement.
Comment by Tim Twiss on July 18, 2010 at 6:12pm
I don't know if anybody recalls Greg and I doing the same thing to Winner's piano song "The Banjo". I would never play it as a "Keeper" piece, but it was a worthwhile exercise to see how a pianist's concept of a "banjoness" translates back. Repeated notes (ala thumbstring), rhythm and general phrasing were pretty good. The files (videos) are still buried in here, including our scores. I thought Paul's tune was pretty cool. Some parts worked better than others, but he seemed to "go for it" as they say. Low end seemed a little tough.
Comment by Tim Twiss on July 18, 2010 at 8:44pm
I can't remember if we posted the original, or either of our arrangements. I also seem a little lost retreiving them if they are on the site. It was a cool project, but passed by rather unnoticed.
Comment by Paul Ely Smith on December 12, 2011 at 12:49am

Greetings.  I'm posting here a long time after this was current, so I have no idea if it will even be seen, but I would love to respond to this really interesting discussion, since I have never before had a conversation about my work with the banjo, and I think you all had very thoughtful, kind, and insightful things to say about my music and scholarship.  I’m sorry if this is too long a response, but you all gave me a lot to work with…

First, I have to say that I am a composer and player of many stringed instruments, and I like to think that I am an artist first, whatever that means, and I am a scholar to the extent that I am passionately interested in most things to do with music, from record production to instrument building as well.  Nevertheless, my professional training is in music composition and I have never taken a musicology course, though I managed to develop and teach a "world music" curriculum at Washington State University for 15 years (I like to say that I’m not a musicologist, but I played one in the Pac-10).  I just thought it was important to learn everything I could about American music when I went to college in the mid-1970s (and, by extension, West African and European vernacular music—I also play traditional Irish fiddle music for example), since almost nothing of value about American music was being taught in the music courses I took.  I played the banjo and was never around anyone who played in any manner similar to the ways I wanted to play it, though I sure wish I had run into all of you guys about 1978.  Pretty much all of my work on the banjo has been in a vacuum.  I never had any idea there were people interested in this stuff, since this was all before the internet, and the music departments I was involved with regarded interest in American music other than European classical music or jazz (…maybe) to be a bit dubious as serious academic inquiry.

I wrote that article in graduate school at UCSD in 1989, as an independent study research project while I was getting my Masters in composition (this after the period where I did those Flying Fish records).  I had only the vaguest advice, since no one there (except a wonderful music librarian named Garrett Bowles) thought it was that serious an inquiry—I mean, it was a banjo— and I started with the realization that in doing a survey of literature and reading a lot of interesting material (but there wasn’t that much in the mid-1980s) no one had examined Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” to see how it corresponded to known 19th-century banjo music, with which I had first become familiar back in the 70s as an undergraduate looking at the work of Robert Winans and Hans Nathan.  I had played the piano piece at that time and realized that I might be uniquely prepared to take a look at this thing.  Then I ran into the Gwendolyn Brooks poem and got her permission to use it (long story).  I was a rank amateur as a musicologist, but this seemed like an interesting thing to check out—was she right?  Had Gottschalk begun the great American tradition of stealing his big hit from some anonymous African-American guy?  And had the story been broken by a Pulitzer-prizewinning poet? 

The point of my article was that her complaint had merit.  Sure, I used contemporary examples, and since brushing in clawhammer style (one of a number of similar examples) is obviously going strong after 150 years, to dismiss my position that numerous aspects of contemporary West African performance practice date back at least that far as well is contrary to the evidence.  The whole revelation of the Western “discovery” of the akonting demonstrates that.  “Historical presentism”?  If history weren’t demonstrated in the present, there would be little reason to study it. 

Comment by Paul Ely Smith on December 12, 2011 at 12:51am

What you don’t know is that I couldn’t get a response (not even a rejection) from any journal I sent it to for years.  Finally, Current Musicology accepted it, but insisted that I jettison the poem to a footnote.  I was willing to cite one of the readers’ friend’s clawhammer banjo method (another demand), but I refused to cut the poem.  No one would address my evidence but they kept coming back that I had to lose the poem (the editor tried to make the case that it wasn’t an appropriate academic tone for a journal, and I realized that he might not know who Gwendolyn Brooks was—I remember saying, “I don’t know, how many Pulitzer prizes have YOU won?”).  Then one of the readers called me at home in the middle of the night to harangue me over it (“blind submission”—ha!).  Really.  I wish I had gotten the responses that you have all posted, which would have led to a much more interesting discussion.  I stuck to my guns and they finally published it.   

So I sort-of lost my taste for musicology, but I wanted to hear this music, so I made the banjo in the video about the time the article came out, which is when Jim must have heard me, since I did a few performances at the time.  It had/has major problems, including the fact that it sounds like a little toy instrument because I copied the little head on that famous painting and made a pretty but problematic little rosette on the side.  The bass is indeed a little tough.  I put too much relief into the fingerboard so I have both clumsy action and buzzing as I go up the neck.  I still loved the sound, though, but right after recording that video last year, I realized that I had to make a new instrument, which I just finished last week.       

If you had endured the attack that I had over my little article, you might have decided as I did to perform the Gottschalk as close as possible to the way he wrote it, to demonstrate that those parts are not “impressions” of banjo music but something closer to actual transcription.  Really, most of the stuff just falls right there under my fingers—the farthest-out thing perhaps is my recent interpretation (not in the article, but in the video) to do that one flashy bit in what I call “kora” style, shifting into up-picking.  I don’t see any reason not to think that wasn’t part of African performance practice in the early 19th century, but, yeah, I’m making it up I guess.  I like the music—remember that this is a flaky artist making these decisions, but I think that most of those textures are credible interpretations.  To me it’s clear that the kumbengo-esque texture of the opening is what is really interesting about the piece (this is clearly a West African architecture, is it not?), but is there any other contemporary evidence of such chordal textures as there are at the end there?  I often just play around with that first part, and my version of Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” is more freely interpreted (yes, I think that one’s banjo music, too), but I do think I have done more than executed some sort of parlor trick on this instrument.  I was arguably guilty of that sort of thing early in my career, but I saw that was a dead end and left it behind (mostly), along with the steel-string, plastic head, fretted banjo I played back then.  I think that the minstrels got some authentic stuff, and they clearly invented a lot of wonderful music out of their synthesis of that and their vernacular European heritage, but I see no reason to think they didn’t miss a lot in the way that white people have often misunderstood African-American music throughout the history of American popular music.  I am missing a lot too, I’m sure.  Anyway, I’m playing and recording again, and will hopefully have a CD of gourd banjo music out sometime in the next year or so.  Thank you again for your thoughtful responses, and I look forward to exploring this great site.    

Comment by Paul Ely Smith on September 10, 2013 at 11:38pm

Yep, this is where it ended.  I didn't know this was posted when the video went up and was discussed--I wasn't aware of this site at the time--and so I wasn't part of the debate, unfortunately.  You'll notice that my posts came six months after the debate, and no one ever responded until you did.  Since this time, I realized that I had to redesign the banjo I had worked with, and I am just getting to work on the promised CD. 

I do think that the minstrel style as presented on this site and through the tutors and all is authentic, but I also think that the Gottschalk pieces, The Banjo and to some degree Bamboula (the so-called "Second Banjo" is a posthumous publication of what looks like a sketch for the "The Banjo" and lacks the most interesting and authentic textures--it may be what prompted him to seek out an actual banjo player to transcribe), are like a kind of banjo Rosetta Stone that preserves a whole lot of banjo music that we don't hear again until the era of recording.  I think the minstrel repertoire is an important part of 19th-c. banjo heritage, but the fact that it was written down gives it a higher profile in retrospect.  For long-term impact on American music, however, the driving repetitive playing of African-American banjo music, built around improvisation over a fundamental groove (e.g., "kumbengo") was arguably the most important banjo music, only hinted at in minstrel music.  The Current Musicology article is available on my website if you're curious, www.palouserivermusic.com.

My playing and building put me on the fringes here, and I may not win many over to my approach when I start showing what I've been working on over the last few years, but I have done my homework, and I am looking forward to putting it the world.  Thanks for your kind words and interest.


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